By Kristin Sziarto
Hearing “teen pregnancy rates…” on the radio a few mornings ago, I struggled through
the last shreds of sleep to listen. A local NPR affiliate was reporting on the ongoing drop in teen pregnancy rates throughout the U.S. with a focus on Milwaukee. The journalist was interviewing Geoffrey Swain, Chief Medical Officer at the City of Milwaukee Health Department, who attributed the decline in teen pregnancy in Milwaukee to an “all hands on deck” approach, involving “…local businesses, media outlets, health care providers, Milwaukee Public Schools, community-based and faith-based organizations…” The interview went on a few more seconds, telling me things I already know from my research. My current research examines public health and reproductive politics in Milwaukee; I am looking at the relationships among the urban networks involved in the campaign against teen pregnancy in Milwaukee, the campaign to reduce infant mortality among African Americans in Milwaukee, and other campaigns around comprehensive health and sexuality education in Milwaukee and around Wisconsin.
In some ways, doing research in the here and now is easy. My research material is all around me, every day: another article in the Journal Sentinel, an ad on a bus shelter I pass on my way to campus, a friend who is a nurse who tells me what a colleague of hers is doing. And at some stage in my research, I’ll be even more in the middle of it. I do ethnographic research, which means that after I read everything relevant to this research, I’ll conduct interviews, and then figure out how to follow various key actors around and hang out and talk with youth in the programs I’m studying. So much for the ‘ivory tower’ myth (of course, at UWM we have concrete and/or brick towers). My research is all right here in Milwaukee—I don’t have to travel far, nor interpret documents or artifacts from centuries ago.
On the other hand, my spatial and temporal immersion in my research poses certain challenges. The temporal immersion means that the subject-objects of my research are always moving and changing. For example, in just the past six months, the composition of a steering committee for the Black infant mortality reduction campaign has changed twice. Three different advertising campaigns were launched during the same time period, one of which ignited a national controversy over co-sleeping. Just keeping up with the media coverage takes time. And the media coverage itself shapes the interaction among the different agencies and people I am trying to study. Then, once I begin doing interviews, what will change between interviews? My interview material will be shaped by multiple, shifting forces and events that I will need to trace. An interview is an interaction in which a few humans create meaning from the elements—present, past, and even future—of situations around them. An interview about events in the past may create a narrative that ‘fixes’ those events—yet another interview about those same events, an interview in a different time and place, might yield a rather different snapshot-narrative about them. Keeping temporal flux in mind actually helps remind me of the performativity of identity, meaning, power.
And then there is the spatial immersion: does it eliminate ‘critical distance’? Geographers and other researchers who do fieldwork in distant places completely uproot themselves to make those journeys…and that physical distance and utter change of place may help them to set aside everyday biases and adopt an open and critical attitude. Then again, thanks to the circulation of images of places and people, not only via the internet but a circulation that had been developing for at least five centuries, people tend to have in their minds preconceptions of places they have never visited (‘imaginative geographies,’ as coined by Edward Said). Thus, material/physical distance does not ensure critical perspective.
My own critical perspective on reproductive politics in Milwaukee was activated that morning about sixty seconds into the interview, when I heard, “…the United Way has been very clear that teen pregnancy is one of the factors that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.” My critical perspective was activated for two reasons. First, critics of the cycle of poverty thesis argue that it ignores the lack of investment in educational facilities in poor neighborhoods and lack of jobs in these areas, and relies on anecdotal evidence rather than on reliable data on poverty and its causes (Gorski 2008). Given the history of deindustrialization in Milwaukee, problems with public school funding, and current, appallingly high rates of unemployment and of children living in poverty, is the drop in teen pregnancy going to lift youth out of the ‘cycle of poverty’? I wish I were optimistic.
Second, this quote suggests that the discourse of the ‘cycle of poverty’ has been taken up in the urban public health coalitions in Milwaukee, where it may be shaping not only the teen pregnancy reduction campaign, but also the campaign to reduce infant mortality among African Americans. Why is the teen pregnancy prevention effort so successful, but Black infant mortality reduction efforts are floundering? Are there connections between these campaigns? If so, are those connections hindering the black infant mortality prevention work? My early research suggests that the strength of certain discourses around teen pregnancy—as a problem of youth of color, as a key point of intervention in the ‘cycle of poverty’—and the influence of particular actors in both networks combine to obscure the most significant causes of infant mortality among African Americans. The most recent and rigorous research has shown that not only poverty, but low birth weight and the stress of experiencing racism are among the most important factors in the higher rates of infant mortality for African Americans. Even highly educated African American women in stable economic and social situations face poor odds (Dominguez et al. 2008).
Sadly, discourses such as ‘cycle of poverty’ seem to persist, and/or be remediated, over time. Though my research is in the ‘here and now,’ the now is shaped by discourses that have sedimented over time, just as the here of Milwaukee’s urban landscape and politics was not just built yesterday—and neither is likely to melt into air by tomorrow.
[Kristin Sziarto is an Assistant Professor of Geography here at UW-Milwaukee. She is currently a C21 Fellow working on a project titled, “The Production of Bodies, Spaces and Affects in Sexuality Education.” The project aims to challenge the notion of adolescents as dangerous to themselves and others, advancing instead the notion that such representations are crafted to hold together urban coalitions. She recently presented work from this project at a C21 work-in-progress talk]